Gillian Dooley

The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska

by
May 2012, no. 341

Papua New Guinea doesn’t loom large in Australian literature. As Nicholas Jose says, our ‘writers have not much looked in that direction for material or inspiration’. Drusilla Modjeska is thus entering relatively new territory for Australian fiction with an ambitious epic set in PNG. It is also a new venture for her: Poppy (1990), her only previous ‘novel’, won two non-fiction awards. She has said that ‘as neither term seemed right, I opted for both’ – autobiography and fiction.

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‘Perhaps,’ Andrew Relph muses, ‘some people love reading but don’t require it.’ Relph is a psychotherapist who grew up in a dysfunctional family in South Africa, with an undiagnosed reading disorder – which he hasn’t exactly overcome. Reading, though vital, is still slow and intense: ‘I read nothing I don’t want to read. I’m like a person with a breathing problem, restricting themselves to oxygen.’

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A treacherous beauty pervades Chandani Lokugé’s third novel, a tragic story of loss and squandered love. Chris Foscari, owner of a rarefied specialist bookshop in Melbourne and son of an Italian father and an Australian mother, is married to the outrageously beautiful Sri Lankan Uma, whom he met when she was studying in Melbourne. They have a teenage son, Arjuna, who is also blessed with unusual grace, at least in his mother’s eyes: 

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Any novel by Andrew McGahan is likely to be a surprise, if you know his previous work, but if you were to approach this book knowing nothing about the author, there would be little about it to disturb your expectations. The cover, with its heraldic design against a marine backdrop, immediately signals its genre, and the maps on the endpapers, showing McGahan’s imagined geography of a place called New Island, confirm that this is an old-fashioned boys’ adventure novel of the heroic seafaring type. A preamble, titled ‘Fair Warning’, neatly excuses McGahan from any pretensions to oceanographic accuracy: ‘The Great Ocean rose and fell with different waves then, and different creatures moved in its depths … The ocean Dow sailed should not be confused with the lesser seas of today.’

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Gillian Mears has been to death’s door and back. Her wonderful essay ‘Alive in Ant and Bee’ (2007) recounts the journey and the exquisite pleasures of her life as a survivor. Writing has taken a back seat, understandably, over the past decade or so. There has been a short story collection, A Map of the Gardens (2002), but a novel from Mears is quite an event, sixteen years after her last, The Grass Sister (1995), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. It has been worth the wait. Foal’s Bread is a big and generous novel, set on a dairy farm in northern New South Wales in the mid-twentieth century: hard and often bitter times. In Mears’s world there is magic in the everyday, and portents everywhere.

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Jackie French, a prolific author, is best known for her children’s books, with variations on historical themes clearly something of a specialty. A Waltz for Matilda, which seems to be aimed at a broader market, builds on the premise that the Jolly Swagman of Banjo Paterson’s song is not alone. His twelve-year-old daughter, Matilda, is with him and witne ...

Mandy Sayer has been winning awards since the start of her career more than twenty years ago. Her first novel, Mood Indigo (1990), a pacy, absorbing account of a remarkable and rackety childhood, bagged the Vogel in 1989. Its autobiographical origins become clear when read in conjunction with her memoir Velocity (2005), which covers Sayer’s early ...

Lost children appear (or disappear) everywhere in literature and film: in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling (2008). Wendy James’s new novel, Where Have You Been?, concerns a lost teenager, and Carmel Bird’s Child of the Twilight (which I reviewed in last month’s ABR) explores the mythic status of the lost child. However, Stephen Orr’s novel Time’s Long Ruin goes to the harrowing core of one of the most disturbing mysteries in twentieth-century Australia – the disappearance of the Beaumont children.

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The Torch and the Sword began life as Craig Stockings’s PhD thesis, and shows its origins on every page. He presents a hypothesis and refers to it often as he proceeds systematically through a chronological and thematic exposition of his subject.

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Given V.S. Naipaul’s status in the literary world, and the prolific commentary on him and his writing, you might ask what is different about Gillian Dooley’s book, V.S. Naipaul: Man and Writer. Dooley’s sympathetic attitude liberates both Naipaul and his writing from critical analyses and from critics with explicit post-colonial and political agendas. She is more than aware of how ‘the reductions of political analysis’ have negatively stereotyped Naipaul’s writing. Rather, she focuses on Naipaul’s genius as a writer, which is not separate from the high standard of ethics, courage, fastidiousness, insecurities and prejudices of the man. For it is these very attributes that Naipaul has inherited from his colonial background that make his writing so rich, remarkable and controversial.

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